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The ‘Blended Learning’ Scam: Is King’s using Covid-19 as an excuse to rip off students?

Features Editor Ishaan Rahman on King’s religious obsession with online teaching, how it harms students and why it may be here to stay

King’s College London can be forgiven for the lacklustre student experience last year. The Coronavirus pandemic raged on, the government imposed new lockdowns and too many students were away from campus to have in-person teaching. A year later, however, there’s a feeling of optimism in the air as vaccination rates soar and daily cases of Covid-19 decline across the United Kingdom.

Challenges do still remain ahead; the government is battling with anti-vaxxers who are risking another wave of infections and the threat of the Delta variant remains high. One only needs to look as far as Florida and Texas, two American states both with incompetent, anti-science Republican governors, to see how the virus can get the better of us when masks and vaccines are not encouraged.

All of that being said, the message from even from the most cautious public health experts is clear: now is the time to reopen society with certain precautions. Here in the UK, schools reopened in March and were followed by restaurants, the entertainment industry and retail. The government has also said business owners can now mandate that their employees return to in-office work. Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, has said that maintaining restrictions beyond the summer would be mostly futile as they will only delay, not prevent, another wave of infections. The story is similar across the pond in the United States, where lead public health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, supports reopening schools.

That brings us to universities and the world of higher education, where the story of reopening is more mixed. Admittedly, large lectures packed with hundreds of students may not be feasible for years to come. Even ignoring the risk of Covid-19, pre-recorded, online lectures offer many other benefits: everyone can hear the lecturer, you can rewind and pause. But small-group tutorials, workshops and labs are fundamental to most degree programmes and can return to in-person teaching with minimal risk. In fact, these will actually be less risky than school classrooms as the latter will have unvaccinated under-18s.

Those facts made it extremely peculiar when, in late August, my timetable was released showing that all of workshops, labs and other small-group teaching would be online. This year, as a second year medical student, I have some clinical exposure (biweekly hospital and GP placements), which are in-person. However, for the remaining four days of the work week, students will remain glued to their computer screens.

I did some research to see if this was unusual. As mentioned, most universities are keeping large lectures online to reduce the risk of infection, which remains even among vaccinated people. However, most other London universities seemed to be moving all of their small-group teaching in-person. Other major London universities such as University College London, Imperial College London and the London School of Economics have confirmed that their small group teaching will be in-person. In contrast, not one of my scheduled classes is on campus. However, the University of Manchester announced that it would be permanently moving to online, “blended” learning. King’s communication on this issue has been woefully inadequate.

Sharpe’s response to my email

I raised this issue with the head of the the MBBS Stage 2 programme, Professor Claire Sharpe (see her reply above). She promptly responded to my email but failed to come up with any valid excuse for why small classes had been kept online. Professor Sharpe said that “students would have to travel to one of the campuses for one teaching session in a day which would prevent them from engaging with the other busy timetabled teaching” but forgets that King’s has actually mandated that all medical students stay near campus precisely so that they can commute for in-person teaching that they were promised earlier on.

Sharpe’s primary defence is that vaccinated people can still contract Covid-19 asymptotically, which is certainly true. However, it does not justify cancelling small-group teaching. In fact, the government’s public health guidance clearly says “[higher education] providers are, therefore, able to shape their courses without restrictions to face-to-face provision”. It also begs the simple question: if schools with unvaccinated students can return to in-person teaching in classrooms of around thirty people, why can’t we? Sharpe is yet to respond to this question.

Moreover, students are paying thousands of pounds for accommodation in central London for minimal time on campus. Not to mention, for medical students, most hospital and GP placements aren’t even near Guy’s or Denmark Hill. If in-person teaching were more frequent, it would, at least, make these pricey student apartments much more worthwhile.

From Professor Tim Lancaster on July 1st, 2021

Even worse, King’s had not been clear throughout the summer that in-person teaching would be so minimal. Professor Tim Lancaster, last year’s Dean of Medical Education, said in an email in July that “smaller teaching groups and practical sessions will be held on campus along with the usual campus facilities and opportunities available to you”. King’s, again, lingered the promise of so-called “blended learning” and waited until students had rented expensive apartments and committed to another year of study to tell them that there teaching would be almost entirely online.

This is not only incompetent and irresponsible but it’s directly against the government’s guidelines, which says “providers should communicate clearly to their students on what they can expect from planned teaching and learning”. Repeating the phrase “blended learning” is not clear in the slightest. King’s should also be explicit about it’s long-term plans for teaching: is the college going to follow other prestigious institutions out of the pandemic or will it become Open University version two?

The college’s refusal to return to in-person teaching, as universities and schools across the world are doing, flies in the face of all common sense and public health advice and is deeply harmful to students. Considering that tuition fees remain at £9,250, students should ask themselves whether these changes are for their benefit or the coffers of King’s College London.

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